The TGO Challenge in 40 photographs

We started at Dornie, where a Hercules flew over us, the lobster pots and the folly in the water.

It was cold.  And windy, but there was no mistaking spring.

We were the last to leave, on the Saturday.

The walk out got good almost instantly, but then stalled on the track in Glen Elchaig.

The falls of Glomach are steep and enticing,

beckoning us towards ever grander schemes.

A hiatus was required because of the weather,

but we continued the following day in good company along Glen Affric, 

naked above, but lush below.

A walk through icy showers and ancient woodland,

passing an energy highway called Beauly Denny, wading

to stop at last on a fine dry beach at a reservoir named Loch ma Stac.

Through old hunting ground now of many lakes, the Balmacaan Fforest,

through snow showers and rain showers and glimmers of sun, to cross a bridge bound for Drumnadrochit.

A boat trip across Loch Ness punctuated our journey,

and this is what love looks like - inside it says 'the telephone is a good way to talk to people without having to offer them a drink'.

Onto the plateau of the Monadh Liath, the grey hills, that's the part of the map with no roads on.  The part with bird bones and mountain hares and more deer than is good for it.

Again in good company, peat hag bashing, and some bald, flat tops in the quickening weather.

Down to the Findhorn meadows, where you can taste human history in some kind of relative harmony with nature,

and where a thousand sea birds flew far inland to escape the freeze,

 and we woke to a cold, wet and muted world,

 which quickly grew colder and wetter.

A long day to Dulhain in deep damp snow, the hills further east cut deeper still by new roads for those who won't walk with their shotguns and new huts alongside equipped with paper plates and plastic cutlery,

and then along the Burma Road, a slow and soggy trudge to a warm dry cafe.

We washed our clothes and lined up for the Pass of the Cows,

and the snow bore our weight, but only just.

Through the red mountains, Am Monadh Ruadh.  Ah, so this is where they have been hiding all the big hills.

Past the endless howl of Carn Toul, and onto to a cheery Derry Lodge, and sunshine at last.

In to Braemar and on to Lochallater for an unexpected social,

then 3 munros on Lochnagar,

postholing every other step in a high white wonderland,

with the Cairngorms whence we came in clear view,

and Iain never far behind us.

Down off the Meikle Pap, looking back from best kept Royal Glen Muick, a little too tidy,

to camp by the bridge over Allt Darrarie and eat Smash and crash early.

Five hours of hag hopping was long and exhausting,

but rewards are found in hidden places,

on the quiet side of Mount Keen.

The sun beats down for the last few days, hill tracks and tarmac roads and a Mason's village,

Finally along the hot lanes with salt on the breeze, to Peregrines and Buzzards on the cliffs, and the beach at St. Cyrus.  We walked until we touched the sea.

Gear Diary (1) - on the TGOC

This marks the start of a new occasional feature called gear diary.  Calling it a diary means it isn't written in stone - this info is of (at best) temporary usefulness.  Also, if I say it fast enough it sounds like I'm wearing false teeth.  Please bear both these things in mind at all times when reading what follows.

I won't pretend to offer the technical low-down, spreadsheet gymnastics or early-adopter shenanigans - there are many better places for that.  But whilst I don't have the patience to write about gear at length, I do have an opinion based on use.  In the past few months my work-life balance has shifted,  I'm out alot more, so I get a more of a chance to live with the things we use to get by and be comfortable outdoors.  They are tools - not more, and not less.  That means it's as much about us as it is about the object of desire itself - probably more.  I'm especially interested in simplicity, and reliability, which I think go hand in hand as complimentary features in a good outdoors product design.  Simplicity is how you make something lightweight that functions on task and lasts (i.e is reliable), as well as dovetailing with the nature experience many of us seek.  So, I hope this occasional series will be sporadic, sometimes flippant, have an opinion, not too long, shot from the hip-flask of experience and viewed through the rheumy eyes of doubt, context, time and date.  In short, subjective with a capital S.  If that's not your thing, look away now.

Right then, that's the 'excuse me' out of the way.  Oh, by the way, this is my new gear store - before this I just had plastic bags in the loft - how great is this!  I like it anyway, makes life alot easier - ergonomics, not features.

This post is about gear I used on the TGO Challenge, a 270km coast to coast crossing in high winds, lots of rain and sun, days of snow and temperatures from around -3 to +30 degrees C.  Quite mixed then.  I also used much of it in the months before the crossing, in order to work out if it was OK to take.  That makes this a review of shoulder season equipment, gear that might or might not fit in the awkward spring/autumn transitional seasons.  It's not a complete list, it's things that stood out one way or another.  The date is MAY 2012.

Warning: Before you write something like this for a high profile US blog, please make sure your shelter is recently seam sealed before embarking on a Scottish coast to coast trip.  Or else get caught with your trousers down.  I love the Trailstar and that's no secret, and it behaved impeccably as always in all conditions, but it did leak.  I had to re seam seal in an emergency - damp camp, something to be avoided unless you enjoy spending a whole afternoon peeling off strips of glue before doing the job properly again.   A surprise on this trip was how well the TS dealt with snow.  I had thought it would panic and fold, but it gently bowed and then shed the white stuff instead.  On the worst night I went out and cleared the lion's share off about 3am, but really - this shelter continues to excel in everything I can throw at it.

Ideally we would have used bivy bags under the Trailstar, since we had so much wet gear to store, but we were testing the 2Oookstar for Sean, and I think that's been useful for developing the product further.  It's off back to him for the mark ii redesign this week.  I'm not going to spill the beans about what we have planned, but I am excited now, its getting good.  Even as was, it was very comfortable and kept us quite alot warmer than just bivi's despite the mesh only sides, but occasionally blown/shaken water from the outer was a mild issue.  My ageing seam seal was at fault really.  The warmth thing was a surprise, I hadn't expected that at all, but useful.

By all means, get yourself a pair of these La Sportiva Raptor jobbies.  They look ridiculous unless you are 9 ft and compete in the high jump, but grip like nothing I've ever worn in all conditions on most surfaces, and are a little more sturdy than inov8's in the toe bump department.  Hey, I've kicked steps in these on the last two backpacks I've done, which tells you something about the rand and toe protection.  As a consequence they drain slower than inov8 trail shoes, and I'd suggest seam sealing the seams to increase the longevity, but mine have done around 400km now and are still going strong.  Well, I say strong, they don't look like the picture below anymore but they still work.  By now you all know to pack a needle and some dental floss for long trips so a touch of DiY is not out of the question should the need arise.

On the other limb, please avoid like the plague anything foot shaped made by Salomon.  My girlfriend has a pair of exit aero's which have proved unremittingly rubbish as soon as purchased last year.  No grip, not waterproof despite the goretex branding, but despite leaking like a sieve on the way in, didn't dry out at all.  Ever.  In some ways I have to admire just how bad they were on every front - at least Salomon did a thorough job on making these completely impractical torture instruments. That takes genuine 360 degree incompetence, not just an accidental oversight or two.  These shoes destroyed T's feet on the TGOC.  Achilles heel problems and blisters on blisters, these are not a few of her favourite things.  I think maybe they make nice trainers for around town, but not serious footwear, sorry.  I think she maybe ready for some nice comfy trail shoes, at last.  There goes that sponsorship deal, then.  Bye......

The above photo also shows a new pair of Keela Scuffer softshell trousers, which have done about the same mileage now.  Good for colder temperatures where they are the only trouser, and for day hikes for sure, but I am not 100% convinced for backpacking.  I possibly could have got away with Montane Terra converts as usual with merino leggings that I wore for bed to warm them up, plus waterproof trews.  They are bulky to pack if not in use, and the material can rub a little along the waist band when in contact with a rucksack, but to be fair I wore them on the nasty days on the Challenge and they performed well overall.  A good inexpensive option, but jury still out for thru-hiking.

Talking trews, Go Lite Tumalo.  Yea, lightweight is all well 'n good 'n that, except when it doesn't work, in which case its 200 and whatever grams of HEAVY and UNNECESSARY emperor's new clothes until I can find a bin to burn it in.  The thing with waterproof trousers, is they are supposed to keep your legs and kegs dry.  These would be really great and soooo stylish, except that the ultralight-ultracool-design-feature-leg-pocket-thingy lets in water.  Take away this silly thigh pocket, which is useless anyway (like I'm gonna put loose change in a pocket near my knee...) and you have something that might work.  That's what I mean about simplicity, and reliability.  At least Go Lite make gear I can recycle - but it would be better if they made trousers that functioned well enough that I didn't have to ditch them before the end of their natural...

Waterproof top was the Rab Momentum:  I loved this jacket, I wanted to tell you great things, really I did.  I bought a replacement when I left my first one on a train overhead storage last autumn.  But it has let itself down, let me down and let you down.  OK, beading is great, it keeps you dry - well as dry as any jacket I've ever had, or better.  Hood is the business and hoods matter outdoors.  But - durability is in question - after about 5 short trips, and then about a week of constant wear and tear under a rucksack on the Challenge, the left armpit is showing signs of rucksack strap burn.  The picture above clearly (I hope) shows fraying in the underarm area on the seam, and there is more off to the right (and more off camera too).  I will reproof it and hold onto it until it dies, but this is quite probably the beginning of the end.  At least its not on the top of the shoulder...yet.

I like Rab gear, as another review at the end of this post shows - its usually really well thought out, even if the fit is sometimes a little strange.  And, given that this is a 'lightweight' eVent garment, I don't expect it to last for decades.  But I do expect it to last for more than a total of about 12 days rain use with a lightweight backpacking rucksack.  Naturally, if Rab contact me about this, you'll hear it here first... over to you, Mr. Carrington.

I subscribe firmly to the look-after-your-hands-feet-and-head-and-the-rest-will-look-after-itself school of thought.  Since the forecast was not so fragrant for the Challenge, I took the variety pack...

Hats:  3 used - a £6 Gelert sun boonie, a thinsulate beanie (found on a rock in Spain) and my Lowe Alpine goretex mountain cap (pictured), all because the lady loves kick ass wet and cold.  Please excuse the silly picture...but rest assured, this old skool bonnet is the business for Scottish weather in winter, spring and autumn.  I own the large, which means even for my big head I can get the beanie underneath to add extra warmth at camp.  I'm the dosy one on the right, by the way, although both models pictured have excellent DWR.

This photo also features probably my most favourite-est bit of hill clobber ever - the Montane Horizon jacket.  Its sort of a technical fleece: elements of softshell performance (quite wind and vaguely water resistant, super breathable) with enough warmth for me to keep the chill away whilst not sweating too much if active.  I wear this almost every time I go out further than the supermarket, have done for 3 years, its still as good as new.  This time I spilt egg down it at Loch Callater Bothy, much to Croydon's amusement.  Of course, its discontinued...

Gloves:  Again, 3.  I've started using synthetic liner gloves and have 2 pairs - trek mates and seal skin - so far the seal skin ones are more robust and a fraction warmer, I took those on the Challenge.  For a tenner or less you have something which is extremely functional and means you can keep warm and light a stove/put up a tent/do your lippy etc.  The point here is a little coverage when anything chunkier would be too much.  Its also just good policy to have 2 pairs of hand warmers when the weather's iffy, as it's next to impossible to keep gloves dry unless you're down the pub instead of up the hill.  I also carry ME windstoppers and Tuff Mitts, both of which work great but make me run hot unless we are well below zero or its truly vile (see: 'Hurricane Sunday').  Photo shows trek mates and some fraying after only a few trips.

New this season!  Pacerpoles.  OK, I won't go on.  I got the aluminum ones in the end, purely because there seems to be a question mark over how recyclable carbon fibre is at the moment.  They function well on the flat and downhill, about the same as a conventional pole IMHO, but uphill these things are the bomb - you can really dig in and power yourself along.  They are bloody heavy though - You get a sea container's worth of LT4's for one pair of these!  The Challenge also saw my Carbon Fibre Mountain King Expedition's retired after 4 years - T has started using two poles and had taken these on, but the stress fractures had got so bad that they froze up several times this trip.  Not safe to take out now, replacing with BD Trail compacts, again aluminum.

Cooking with gas:
Yes, we did.  I don't usually, but the ETA Spider Express was great for this trip.  Wet, cold, long days - no fuss, plenty stable and no problem to light.  Fuel is plentiful in major towns.  We used 2.3 230gm canisters over 2 weeks for 2 people, averaging about 4 litres boil a day.  It was great to make a lunchtime brew to fend off the cold, something I might not bother with if using meths. I love the caldera system, but for the Challenge this time, gas was perfect.  My GF is more confident with it too, which meant I could pitch whilst she got the water on, saved alot of time. 

Food: I've read some fairly ill thought out comments about people shipping food for the Challenge, which seem to suggest that nobody is thinking about their impact on local economies.  I found this to be far from the truth.  People I met on the Challenge went out of their way to spend both generously and locally whenever they could, sharing information about local cafes, bars, outdoors shops - all non chain places.  In some small villages the Challenge is a major player in the local economy - food, drink, bed and board, and kit.  Truth is food is not always guaranteed in places where you need it.  The other truth is that the UK consumer sold out to supermarket chains years ago.  Maybe that's a generalisation, but for packaged food at least, it's often the reality in the Highlands.  Should we buy local, or buy independent?  Ideally both, but sometimes we can't.  We shipped two lots of food and with hindsight I would do one more drop, but to different places, packing less and smarter to fill the gaps the local/chain supermarkets can't offer.

Where there's a choice though, maybe the critics have a point - the Tesco breakfast in Montrose is a minimum wage disgrace and nobody with an ounce of nouse should be in there.  Fair trade, my arse.  I'll know for next time. 

Rab Boreas:
Concerned about the cold I bought this mid new a day before I left.  It has so far been fantastic.  It's a synthetic hoody, basically, a bit wind and rain resistant but not much, has a really good hood on it which is great for covering up and keeping warm under a hat or two, and gave my Horizon a boost on the really hanging days when it was cold.  The fit is loose-ish and the sleeves wide enough not to cut off the circulation to your arms - I think alot of climbers value it for all these reasons.

I didn't wear it next to the skin until the last day or two and it didn't seem to stink too much that I needed to wash it.  So it adds a bit of warmth and some wind resistance, mainly because the hood is so good and it's another layer.  However, where this really excels is in the heat.  Next to the skin in temperatures pushing into the low 30's (c), I remained cool, calm and collected, the hood came down low so as my ears and forehead didn't burn, with the neck undone for a good amount of venting.  It's a bit confusing putting a hood up in broiling sunshine, counter intuitive - but if you need sun protection, the Boreas will stop you cooking.  This may well become my go-to summer hiking top...  Here's another zoolander pose, just because I loved how practical this was - it's light, packs small, can be layered or worn solo, covers a whole range of seasons and uses, it's rare to get this much functionality in something well under £50:

What else?

Undies, socks and tops are all smartwool merino, no news there.  Merino boxers seem to get trashed quite fast, leading to rubbing in delicate places in hot weather.  I should have taken my beyond excellent (and orange!) Montane Sonic 2.0 running short, which solves that issue in a mesh.

I took my increasingly knackered Montane anti freeze jacket, which I grow to love more and more the more tired it becomes.  Mmm, the smell of stale mac n' cheese.  Down was probably not a great fit for this trip, and I wonder what I'll replace it with when the time comes.  PHD's always look good, but down jackets, in Scotland?  My GF took her still fairly new Haglof's Barrier which is turning out to be the best £100 spent for a long time.  Its purple, very warm and has a brilliant hood.  The odd bit of rain doesn't seem to bother it at all.  Maybe they do a mens version... 
MLD snow gaiters:
Great for snow repulsion so a good fit for this trip, but not so good at keeping the heather and grit out of trail shoes.  I have inov8 gaiters which do this well, but 'the one' gaiter to rule them all remains elusive.  I noticed a certain very stylish challenger was modelling OR puttees, which I may have to investigate further.

Sleeping mats:
Spare me.  We use Multimat 8mm, and a half Z lite in combination with our rucksacks for under the legs - one, other or both depending on the time of year.  They don't burst, leak, or develop bubbly tumors where your spine or hips go.  They are cheap and reliable.  Airbeds belong in the 1970's, or for weekend trips on a campsite a few times a year.  Please don't try to convince me otherwise, or I'll start shouting at you.

No, no and no.  Learn to read a map and use a compass with some degree of accuracy, or half learn and get away with it, like the rest of us.  DO NOT rely on tech that you don't know how to fix when the machines finally take over and EMP your ass.  I'm being half serious.  The other half thinks maybe I should get some UK maps on my viewranger account, just to be on the safe side.  It's nice to have that security in the bottom of the pack, but I don't like how we all learn to rely on tech and forget good skills.

I think that's mostly what was new or different covered.  I won't be doing these that often, so the half baked cod philosophy and photos will resume shortly I'm sure. 

Decisions decisions - on the TGOC

I might not do a blow by blow account, there are many others who do a fine job of that anyway, but here's one of a few ideas....

Making decisions under time or weather pressure - it's the dark art of any longer trip - anyone cash rich enough can buy themselves the latest and greatest gizmos, but its harder applying the kit and the people using it to the job in hand, especially if it's a moving target and conditions are constantly changing (i.e the norm in Scotland).  Stick, or twist?  That part of the process really is fascinating.
Newcomers to long walks will find this harder than those more experienced, some of whom told me they were able to walk sections of previous Challenges from memory when they met serious weather.  Then again, different people have different tolerances of comfort regardless of experience.  Anyway, after conjecture about the high abort rate, some sort of insight into our thought processes over the last two weeks might be useful or interesting to others...

In advance - the weather forecast suggested heavier, warmer gear than our previous trips to the west in May required, and we were proved right - in spades.  In the first week there was a day of torrential rain and gale force winds, followed by the usual showers but also knee deep fresh, wet snow to deal with, and suddenly the heavier insulated jacket, merino wool long johns and extra hat and gloves didn't look so over cautious after all.  It's an obvious thing to say, but do check the weather before you go.  I know of some very experienced people who may have done this, but didn't alter their kit selection in response...  The weather men told us it was going to get nasty, and forewarned is forearmed, is it not?

Hurricane Sunday - by a week in, 'that' Sunday, where a month of rain fell in a day, had attained mythic status amongst participants.  It was usually the first or second question when you met - where were you?

We were at the head of Glen Affric, about a km above the Falls of Glomach, which at 5am wasn't an overly friendly place to be.  Zero cover, way beyond treeline and mucho overgrazed.  We woke with the tarp flapping in the wind (driver error - I'd forgotten to put a knot in the back seam tie out, which I'd recently swapped for new cord).  The tops were out altogether, the second change of plan was to belay in the Glen Affric Youth Hostel at Allt Beithe.  We went in for a brew, soaked to the skin and tired of staggering about like drunks in the gale for a few hours - just like everyone else - but within a hour or so I knew we weren't leaving.  The rivers became impassable by about 2pm and a few more came over the pass from Strathcarron.  It was a great place to stay but meant that by end day 2 we were a good half day behind schedule.  Still, the right thing to do.  Thanks to Audrey the manager there for supplying lots of hot water and kind words too - she was brilliant.

Peak water also meant that our planned route over the Balmacaan might be in jeopardy.  Peak water in this context means drainage.  You need to factor that the water level may continue to rise after the rain stops, for hours.  The Balmacaan is off path, reputably boggy at the best of times and we were using the lakes to navigate, aiming off a series towards the Drumnachrochit track.... should we go or would it be flooded?  It was that or the A road all the way, with almost as much path-as-river action beforehand - not an enticing prospect.  Luckily the next day things cleared up enough to forge ahead, and although very soggy we were never more than ankle deep and pitched up by the dry beach at Loch ma Stac about 9pm, after a long day catching up on our lost time.  There was some swearing, and some wading, but yes it was safe.  The 'track' was actually the worst of it.

The 'magic' of the Monaliadth - mmm, still soggy.  Then the snow appeared.  After a seemingly endless track, we changed our plans at the top.  Navigate off the tops was our strategy here, and a good one I think.  People generally use the waterways in this part of the world as there are few paths, and we did that too - but we needed visibility in the wet snow and so aimed for the big stuff.  Get to the top, fall off to the glens.  This isn't always a good plan - in pointier hills in wetter conditions water run off can be dangerously rapid near the top too - but the ground here is broader and flatter, and in low cloud and snow very confusing.  The strategy worked for us given the conditions - it was hard going, and I am a not a hugely technical navigator, but map, compass and bearings got us over.  To any novices reading this: at least one of your team needs to be very competent with the tools and principles of navigation to do this walk.  No need for flashy, but competence and confidence - yes.  A GPS alone is not nearly enough.  In case you're wondering, I am the navigator in our team of two, but T is often more observant on the ground than me, so makes very valuable contributions.  Checks and balances.  There was one time when we could have used two compasses as the visibility got really horrible for a while, so that's a lesson for the future...

I'm not sure what we would have done if this hadn't have been possible.  Probably gone south and over the Corrieyairack pass from Fort Augustus.  We didn't have maps for this although they could have been purchased from Fort Augustus on the way.  But I was there to see the land under threat from the energy industry, and see it we did.  It's a stunningly beautiful place, even in mean weather, and chock full of wildlife.

To Ghru or not to Ghru - that really was the question.  Talk of knee deep snow, the 'impassable pass', and so on.  Ooh, calamity.  First thing in Aviemore, before even a coffee, we took our cold, sodden hinds to the Tourist Information Centre to get the low down.  The Aviemore TIC is one of the best there is, they know about the weather in the hills because of the needs of skiers.  MWIS verdict was stabilizing, improving slowly.  Webcams showed tops were off completely.  Tried to call Challenge control, got hotel reception as the phones were busy often on this trip - lots to deal with.  Chewed it over some more in the cafe.  Didn't want to be told no.  They were telling others to go round via fords of Avon, we heard.  We'd been over by Bynack More in January and there was no way that was going to be easier in this weather, that plateau is at 700ms plus and completely exposed - plus the Avon might be impassable.  I've since spoken to others who had a hard time up there, I didn't see it as the safer option at all.  I had shipped in a Harveys map of the Cairngorms with our food parcel just for this decision, knowing it might be tricky and wanting to keep our options open.  Glen Feshie was our Foul Weather Alternative but meant two days instead of one, and was going to be wet too.  I texted control again later, told them we had done our research - our plan was to go, but only if visibility was good and the weather more settled by the morning.  We had additional corroboration from the National Park ranger contacted by the good folk at Coylumbridge campsite.  He had the up to date local knowledge and thought it was do-able. 

The rain stopped at 5pm, and when we left late at 10.30am the following morning it was still dry.  Sit it out, learn what you can, watch and wait.  But also, our timing for the Ghru was lucky.  A day earlier and it would have been the Feshie whether we liked it or not.  Postholing up to our knees, and yes, the boulder field in wet snow is dangerous, but slow and steady wins the race and the Feshie was apparently pretty wild too, I heard after.  We were exhausted by the time we reached Derry Lodge though - it took concentration, but we both really wanted to do the Lairig Ghru as part of our first Challenge - it makes complete sense as a thru-hiking route, the 'pass of the cows'...

After that, the going got easier, it's not all hard work - we had to learn how to take long lunch breaks all over again.  There seems to be an art to this too - I do it easier than T, but she can be persuaded if the food is ok (i.e if there is soup, crisps and chocolate).  Resting is important.  I think we'll plan a full rest day if we do this again, we could have taken one but we wanted to get in on Thursday and left a day later than most.  I think a day of recuperation (not necessarily in the bar) is good for the mind and body - I find I start to slow down after about 7-8 days, it happened on the HRP too.

After Derry Lodge and Braemar, we went high.  At Lochnagar we waded through wet snow up to our knees, walking with Ian whose a bigger lad with a bigger bag and went in up to his waist a couple of times, but none of us would have changed it for the world - it was one of the best mountain days I have had in the UK, bar none.  Hard work, but absolutely crystal clear.  Made a nav error towards the end trying to find Miekle Pap but doubled back, avoided the short cut into the bowl of terror, and got down safe.

The following day, we aimed for Mount Keen... but the stupid way.  I'm surprised our vetter didn't warn us about the 5 hours of peat hag purgatory we endured.  Mr. Sloman bless him, told me it might be 'a little boggy', which I took to mean it might be a little boggy, which since the rest of the walk had been the same didn't seem to matter - now I know better!   It wasn't possible to follow the channels which run north/south and not east/west in the main, and we must have added a few hundred metres of ascent just scrambling and falling up and down on our way east north east to the north end of the mountain.  But no way were we not going to climb a Munro or two if we had the weather for it, and we did at the end.  It's a horrible approach, the hill just sits on the horizon, teasing you for hours!  But also: two tiny, magical glens, many deer, a giant mountain hare, and ancient standing stones.  Was it worth it?  Of course it was.

We also went over the Wirren hills by Tarfside a day before the end, which was exposed in the heat but about 10degrees cooler than the glen floor, so the right thing in my mind.  Interesting to see the damage done by new hill tracks and intensive bird hunting first hand - it's a farmyard up there, despite a beautiful rolling ridgeline.  Time to turn the tables on the toffs.

One of the things we would do differently next time isn't about the route at all, but the celebration dinner at the end.  Scared off by stories of terrible veggie food, we didn't go to the meal, and I think we missed out.  New co-ordinator John Manning had made extra efforts with the menu and people found it good.  As a consequence we missed a few of the speeches at the start, and also our chance to stand and be congratulated as first timers.  We're both a bit shy of that kind of ceremony, but it is an achievement, and it would have been good to cheer on all the other newbies, as well as all the old timers (which we did, from the back).  If it's your first time, book yourself on the dinner, regardless.  We will next time...

How Hard?  People said this Challenge was tough, and this is our first one so I've not got a comparison.  My perspective is that the walking was easy but the weather was tough.  Except the road at the end, and the peat hags to Mount Keen - they were just hard, full stop.  It's difficult to stay dry enough, warm enough and motivated enough with wet snow falling fast up high and driving rain down low, and it slows you down.

Our decisions raised a few eyebrows here and there - why did we forge on?  The Falls of Glomach weren't a problem when we were there - Yes, there is a drop to the left when ascending, and we wouldn't have climbed in there the following morning in high winds, but we had another option on the map for getting into Affric (which was actually worse on the ground according to reports!).  Compared to most of the walking we do this gorge is not an issue.  We did stop when the rivers made us on the Sunday, and held up in the SYHA.  We accessed the conditons the rest of the time and decided then and there.  It was up for discussion, we didn't just plough on regardless.  What's important is that we changed our methods of navigation in order to stick to our plan - we adapted to stay on target.  We didn't bail out and hit the road, that was really last resort for both of us and we were never at that point at all.  In the middle of the walk, road wasn't much of an option anyway - we deliberately chose to stay miles away from it from the outset of planning.  T's feet are a mess of plasters from wet boots (Goretex? - honestly, what a joke) but we kept a close eye on the weather, the navigation and each other, accepted corrections where we needed to from each other, and went for the tops where we felt able and our timing was opportune.  Sometimes we walked with other solo walkers - being part of a team is good when the weather is testing, I think for them too - and this is part of the bigger picture of what the Challenge means.  Word up to Rob, Stephan and Ian especially.  We had a good run.

Future Plans - this is where it gets interesting!  This time I used Scottish Hill Tracks and other blogs as the basis for the route.  In the meantime I bought a Harvey's munro map, and the confidence and experience gained from doing this Challenge is invaluable.  I think the route for next time will be alot more ambitious and aim for more mountains in the first instance, then look for ways of joining them as a through route.  Less tracks, more topography.  I am looking at a diagonal from either Oban or Torridon, and there were exciting reports from Morar starters, although both the latter are committing routes from day one.  We'll see.  Regardless, the TGOC is a Pandora's box of possibilities, and this I hope is just the start of many crossings.  I am promised to the Cape Wrath Trail, though, so I'm not sure which will come first....

A brilliant time and thanks

Returned home after an ace fortnight in the highlands on our first TGO coast to coast walk.  We both came away with a glimpse of why people feel so passionately about it.  There were gales and snow and rain and a heat wave to finish, all enjoyed and endured by some of the most foamy mouthed backpacking nutcases from all over the world.  Put away your preconceptions if you think the TGOC is an overcrowded ramble - this is a real individual challenge, but the people you meet on the way make it.  A must do event if you love hiking and wild camping and I can't recommend it highly enough.  More later I'm sure, but until then, a big thankyou to all who walked some, all or any of the way, and especially the organisers, vetters and volunteers.  Cheers!